Interview: 'The Square' Director Jehane Noujaim Jehane Noujaim's documentary follows a group of young revolutionaries in Egypt through the political upheaval of the past two-and-a-half years. NPR's Robert Siegel spoke with the director about the film, the activists it follows and their country's future.
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'The Square' Tightens Lens On Egypt's Revolution

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'The Square' Tightens Lens On Egypt's Revolution

'The Square' Tightens Lens On Egypt's Revolution

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The new documentary "The Square" is set in Cairo's Tahrir Square.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: They're chanting the people demand the fall of the regime. "The Square" is a gripping, visceral portrait of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its tumultuous aftermath.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Some very dramatic scenes in central Cairo. The Christians here are very angry with the military rulers on Egypt who, they say, are not doing enough to protect them.

SIEGEL: "The Square" puts the audience directly in the middle of the protest. It follows the lives of several young revolutionaries over the past two and a half years. It charts their journey from early euphoria of victory to the depths of despair as those victories unravel into violent clashes and profound political confrontations between secular revolutionaries, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Who was - what is there in the middle? So who did they vote for? Who did they vote for?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Unintelligible)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tell me at least who they can vote for.

SIEGEL: The film's director is Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, and she joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

JEHANE NOUJAIM: Thank you. It's great to be here.

SIEGEL: And, first, explain who shot this film, and how much did they shoot?

NOUJAIM: This was a very collaborative process, and we had a number of filmmakers shooting in the square. The entire team met in the square in 2011, and we all shot various parts of the film. We ended up with about 1,600 hours and, out of that, made a hour and a half film.

SIEGEL: You have to explain that you actually took this film to the Sundance festival earlier this year. And I gather they told you, go back and keep filming.


NOUJAIM: People thought we were crazy, actually, because we did show it at the Sundance Film Festival. But as we were on the way to Sundance, our characters, all of them, were back in the streets fighting because President Morsi had pushed a constitution through and was claiming dictatorial powers. So it became a much more interesting story because it showed that the people that we followed and the people of Egypt were not going to rest, and they were going to fight against fascism, whether the face of fascism was Mubarak or the army or the Muslim Brotherhood.

SIEGEL: Do you feel that you have made a comprehensive documentary here, even if it is through the eyes of these young people? Or did you ultimately have to make editorial decisions? I can imagine at one point in the documentary, I could hear a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian, whom I know, I could just imagine him saying they left out the part where the holdover judges throw out everything that the Muslim Brotherhood does. They left out the old judiciary that is still there, which you did. A significant omission or you just have to tell the story?

NOUJAIM: No. I think that the way that I make films is that I tell the story through the eyes of characters. And so if you follow the character's journey, there are obviously things that you are leaving out. But the hope with a film like this is make people feel like they've had a glimpse and really experienced revolution.

People don't get to experience what we've experienced or had a glimpse of the past couple of years. And once people are able to experience that, there are thousands of books out there that you can continue to read and gain an education on what's happening in Egypt. This isn't an interview film. We didn't go through and interview every, you know, leader across Egypt on what was happening. We decided to really take it from the perspective of these young revolutionaries.

SIEGEL: How did you feel about these people whom you were filming ultimately? I mean, you must have spent an enormous number of hours looking at the film of them, not to mention originally being with them. Did you come away deeply impressed, sympathetic, critical? What would you say?

NOUJAIM: I think you have to fall in love with your characters that you're following because you never know whether the film is ever going to get out there or whether anyone's going to see it. So you have to really like the people that you're following. You have to feel like you're learning something from them, that they're surprising you, that they're taking you to a place where you've never been, in the most enlightening kind of way.

So when I met Ahmed, for example - he's the lead character in the film - I mean, he is one of the most charismatic, joyful, pure personalities that I've ever met. You know, you talk to him, you just smile. You want to be with him. You want him to take you through this world.


AHMED HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: This is Ahmed Hassan. He's the remarkable, charismatic, young man. Yeah.

NOUJAIM: Yeah. He's 26, I think, now.

SIEGEL: Yeah. You say people want to, you know, want to - I wanted to shout something at him at one point. I wanted to yell at him because he declares we don't need leaders. We need a conscience. And I wanted to say, you know, you may need a conscience, but you also need some leaders because you're going to get them anyway. You'd probably better figure out some people here who are actually capable of leading. I wondered whether this is another story of the sincerity of youth, being able to deter a government from doing something but not have the stuff to actually ever lead a government.

NOUJAIM: This is a very good question, and it's something that we've talked about so many times, you know, in the offices. And I've had these conversations with Ahmed, and what he says is we need to create a society of consciousness, and out of that, a good leader will emerge. And what Ahmed says in the film, he says, you know, I think one of the greatest achievements - and he's perhaps joking, but he says, you know, I think one of the greatest achievements of this revolution is that you have these kids playing this game, the people demand the fall of the regime whether - and some of them play Brotherhood and some of them play police and some of them play army.

And you're talking about a country where when I grew up in the country - the Egypt that I grew up in, you could not have a conversation, a frank, political conversation with taxi drivers or different people in the street. People were worried about who is listening. Is this secret police? I shouldn't really say this because I could be carted away for this. And so the fact that people were standing in a square, talking about a future of a country that they wanted to create, that's a huge, huge shift.

And I think that that's incredibly important, whether these particular kids are able to stay in the street - they're not going to stay in the street. At a certain point, it needs to go from the street to a constitution, to the ability to elect leaders that represent them. But until that constitution is written, and until there are the checks and balances that are supposed to exist, right now the street has been the ballot box.

And that leads to a very tumultuous, you know, you can't just - you can't lead by the streets forever, right? But that is the last two and a half years that we've faced. And that's what we wanted to show.

SIEGEL: Well, Jehane Noujaim, thank you very much for talking with us.

NOUJAIM: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And Jehane Noujaim's documentary about Egypt is called "The Square." This is NPR News.

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